-Fasting – Biblical Instruction Or Christian Custom?

Fasting Biblical Instruction Or Christian Custom?  

Picture FrameIn September, 2003, I was in London, and saw “magic man” David Blaine lying cramped up in a small perspex box, hoisted high from a crane on the south bank of the River Thames, near the Tower Bridge. Soon afterwards, he achieved international publicity for achieving his goal of fasting for 44 days, with only water to sustain him. During his fast, he became the butt of cranks and weirdos who did their best to make his stunt as uncomfortable as possible.   But is this what fasting is all about? I think not! In fact, it is exactly this attitude of religious exhibitionism which our Lord warns against in Matthew 6:16-18. Fasting is a personal discipline, something to be undertaken in secret, to be seen only by our Heavenly Father; and any rewards will come from Him, and no-one else.

Many religions have fasting as part of their required practice. The Muslim “partial” fast of Ramadan is well known. Even the word “breakfast” reminds us that the morning meal is when we “break” the fast which occurs during the hours we are not eating because the body has partially “shut down” in sleep. Apart from one possible reference in Daniel, when in his mourning he limited his diet by avoiding “pleasant foods” such as wine and meat (Dan. 10:3), the Biblical practice appears to have been “absolute” fasting – going without all food for a period of time.

Some Christians keep a partial fast during the forty days of Lent prior to Easter, and Orthodox and Western Christian communions have advocated fasting in some form for centuries. Luther, Calvin and Wesley were known to use fasting as an adjunct to prayer. As recently as March, 2003, the United States Senate passed a resolution calling for a national day of humility, prayer and fasting in a time of war and terrorism.

Old Testament Perspective
To establish the reasons for fasting, a good place to begin is in the Old Testament. As far as can be ascertained, God’s earthly people, the Jews, were not instructed by Moses to fast. The closest we come to it was on the Day of Atonement, when they were told to “afflict their souls,” an expression which seems to have involved fasting (Lev. 16:29-31). This interpretation is borne out by Isaiah 58:3, a verse which suggests a strong parallel between “afflicting souls” and fasting. So here, a significant annual celebration for the Jewish nation proved an occasion for fasting.

Other religious fasts, mentioned in Zechariah, after the Jewish remnant returned from exile (Zech. 8:18-19), were to be occasions of joy rather than sorrow, but there is no record of their being instituted by God. However, there is no doubt that individuals and groups of Jews fasted on particular occasions for a variety of reasons. Here are some examples:

° National guidance: When he was threatened by a huge army of Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites, Jehoshaphat “proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah … to seek the Lord” in prayer (2 Chr. 20:3).

° National penitence: Israel fasted for a day at Mizpah, when Samuel gathered them together, once the ark of the covenant had been restored to Judah, after being held by the Philistines. This was a confession of guilt that the whole nation had departed from God to worship idols (1 Sam. 7:6).

° Corporate mourning: David and his band of faithful supporters fasted for a day after Saul and Jonathan died in battle against the Amalekites (2 Sam. 1:12). This was an intense expression of sorrow over the slain king and his son, and over the disgrace brought upon the nation by their defeat.

° Personal grief: David also fasted as a mark of his distress at the illness of the child born of his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan told him the child would die as punishment for his sin. It appears, however, that David believed the Lord could change His mind and allow the child to live, so he fasted. Once the child had died, he broke his fast. There may also have been an element of seeking guidance and awakening hope in his attitude (2 Sam. 12:16-23).

° Vicarious confession: Ezra also mourned and fasted, not because of anything he had done, but because of the guilt of others who had returned from captivity in Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He was deeply grieved because many men, including priests and Levites, who should have known better, had married pagans (Ezra 10:6). His was a confession on behalf of others, accompanied by weeping and fasting.

New Testament Practice
In the New Testament fasting was still carried out. Anna, a devout Jewish woman, is recorded as fasting and praying often (Lk. 2:37). Some strict Pharisees fasted twice a week (Lk.18:12). And there is evidence in early Church times that Jews still fasted on the Day of Atonement (Acts 27:9).

While Jesus assumed His disciples would fast, the only occasion when He is recorded as fasting was during the forty days in the wilderness, prior to the temptation; the reason may well have been that there was no food available in the desert. But it provided the opportunity for Him to overcome the first temptation of Satan to turn stones into bread.

Jesus left no teaching on the value of fasting, and suggests that it was inappropriate for His disciples to fast while He, their bridegroom, was with them. This was to be a time of rejoicing. After He left them, they could fast like the rest (Mt. 9:14-15).

It appears that early Church leaders fasted when choosing missionaries and elders (Acts 13:22-23;14:23). These would be times of special significance associated with prayers for guidance. Indeed prayer and fasting go together in most New Testament passages, and it is this combination which many Christians see as biblical.

There is no teaching about fasting in any of the Epistles, although Paul fasted (2 Cor. 6:5). However, in the context of this passage, it could well be that his going without food resulted from hardships he faced in his various journeys, rather than as a specific act of devotion.* It is also well documented that the practice of fasting was common during the time of the early Christian church, usually in association with times of prayer.

What About Today?
In the absence of specific instruction in the Epistles, which would make fasting part of regular prescribed Christian devotion, it seems best to regard a spirit of habitual self-denial, rather than occasional abstinence from food, as more true to the kernel of the apostles’ teaching. This may sometimes involve going without food, as the intensity of the experience makes eating unnecessary or impossible. If the time of fasting is used to enable more focused and concentrated prayer, to experience a sharper sense of spiritual failure, true humility and renewed faith, it would certainly be valuable. When Paul talks about “buffeting” or disciplining his body to bring it into subjection (1 Cor. 9:27) he may have had fasting in mind, as one aspect of self-denial which would have kept him from being disqualified from Christian service.

Perhaps Christians in wealthy western countries today need to consider over-eating to be what it is, the sin of gluttony, and moderate their eating habits to be more in line with a simpler lifestyle. Missionaries often see third-world Christians fasting, not because it’s a spiritual discipline, but because these believers can’t afford food. In these circumstances fasting takes on new meaning.

It may well make us in western countries think twice before we sink our teeth into a large steak, when one half the size would be plenty, and one a quarter of the size adequate! Such reflection should give more meaning to our fasting, and strengthen our prayers for the Lord’s world and its billions of needy people. Habitual self-denial involving fasting for specific purposes must be valuable, if its outcomes are humility, spiritual discernment and more focused intercession.

*There are two other references to fasting in Paul’s life (Acts 10:30; 1 Cor. 7:5), but the textual evidence is against them being part of the original manuscripts, and many translations do not include them. There is also doubt about the whole of verses Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29, which are not found in some early manuscripts.

By Ian Livingstone

With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website:


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